‘Nefarious’ Drones Menace Airports, Border, U.S. Officials Warn

  • Officials to ask Congress for more power to counter drones
  • DHS counter-drone authority set to lapse in October

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U.S. officials plan to request more authority from Congress to counter growing threats from drones.

The devices—which have become more technologically advanced and cheaper—raise concerns about attacks, smuggling, and flight disruptions, officials from the Department of Homeland Security warned lawmakers at a hearing Thursday.

DHS and other members of the administration plan to give Congress a legislative proposal in the “very near future” to reauthorize and expand the agency’s power to address drone threats, Samantha Vinograd, a top DHS official, told the House Homeland Security Committee. The agency wants more authority to monitor airports and other transportation hubs, officials said.

“Emerging technologies will expand the boundaries of what is possible for threat actors,” said Vinograd, DHS’s acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism, threat prevention, and law enforcement.

Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A SZ DJI Technology Co. Mavic drone flies in New York on May 24, 2017.

The Department of Homeland Security is authorized to counter threats from drones under the 2018 Preventing Emerging Threats Act (part of Public Law 115-254). That authority lets it monitor and track drones, seize control, and destroy them, but it sunsets in October and may not be adequate for today’s threats. An inspector general report in 2020 found that DHS has “limited capabilities” to counter drones.

Letting the authority expire “would result in significant risk to all of our homeland security,” Vinograd said.

Airport Concerns

DHS’s current authority to deal with drones is limited to 30 airports and they’re reactive, said Austin Gould, acting deputy executive assistant administrator for operations support at the Transportation Security Administration. More authority for other airports as well as other transportation modes, such as pipelines, rail, and cruises, are needed because they’re “all subject to the same sort of nefarious drone activity,” he said.

The Coast Guard’s Rear Admiral Scott Clendenin also noted that drones threaten to disrupt commercial maritime infrastructure.

Long-Distance Drones Would Get Own Right-of-Way in Proposal

DHS has “significant data” and actual incidents that point to increasing threats to airports, Vinogard said. The administration plans to address those growing threats in its proposal, she added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are interested in addressing the threats through reauthorization, but also want to ensure privacy is protected.

“You have given us a pictorial, power story that should not be cited as overexaggeration, but a call to action,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said.

Smuggling Threat

Sensors captured more than 30,000 drone flights within close proximity to the southwest border in a recent five month period, said Dennis Michelini, deputy executive assistant commissioner for air and marine operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Nearly 15% of those were at night, in violation of Federal Aviation Administration rules, and nearly half exceeded the FAA-regulated altitude of 400 feet.

Rep. Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.) said he is especially concerned that “transnational criminal organizations are using drones to move migrants and narcotics across the border” and for surveillance of Customs and Border Protection personnel.

“It’s a matter of when, not if, some major event is going to be happening either at the border, or is going to be happening in one of our airports or one of our transportation hubs through the use of these unmanned systems,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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